“Miss Martin, I know you’re nervous, but please lean toward the microphone and speak as loudly and clearly as you can.” The defense attorney tugs the bottom of his suit coat, seeming nervous himself—of the TV cameras, the prosecutor’s many objections, the climate in this florescent-lit Florida courtroom. “Now, you were born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on September 12, 1980. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” says Caitlin Martin, the defendant, the murderer. Did you kill Brian Davis? her lawyer had asked, moments ago. Yes, she’d whispered. The question and its answer were formalities. This trial isn’t meant to determine Caitlin’s guilt—we all know that she stabbed and then shot her lover, Brian Davis—but to classify her crime and determine a punishment. Those will be the jury’s responsibilities. The rest of us here in the courtroom are under no obligation to be fair or impartial, and no one seems inclined to be. It’s Friday, March 8th: day twenty-four of the Caitlin Martin trial, day one of Caitlin’s own testimony, and day five of five that my sister Jana and I will be here at the Orange County Courthouse, watching in person.

We began watching at home after Jana’s surgery. She was treated for papillary thyroid cancer—a “good cancer,” some dim-witted nurse told us, “especially in young women like you.” “I’ll pray for you,” the same nurse had said, and Jana put her hand straight over my mouth. The cancer was “good” in that the growth would be easily excised, the errant cells scalded away with one dose of radioactive iodine. (“You’ll still have your hair!” everyone congratulated her). But Jana had been practically quarantined in the days after she drank her dose. Because of the radiation, no one was allowed to spend more than fifteen minutes at a time with her. She had to flush the toilet twice every time she used it. (And then what? Was there a separate septic system somewhere in the hospital, filtering her irradiated piss?) The magazines she brought with her, the body pillow, the half-knit scarf, would themselves have to be scanned before they could leave the ward. Relatively speaking, I’m sure all of that is “good.” But it didn’t feel good, to wave at my little sister from the other side of a thick window. She looked small and sickly in her cranked-up hospital bed, her dark hair lank, her eyes squeezed shut. Separated from her, both of us alone, I was more scared than I’d been since her diagnosis. I would’ve liked someone to worry with but that wasn’t how Jana wanted it. She didn’t tell our parents about her illness, just as, three years before, she hadn’t told them about her divorce until it was finalized. Mom and Dad are snowbirds now, wintering in Arizona; when they come home to Michigan this summer, she’ll explain the scar at her throat as she’d explained her husband’s absence: briefly, only after they ask. As then, she will leave out most of the details—to spare them unnecessary pain, she’ll claim. But I know my parents will be hurt, again, that Jana didn’t include them. Hurt that we excluded them from something so huge.

So it was just me with Jana, during and after her surgery—me and Caitlin Martin. “If you could volunteer to be on a jury, I would,” Jana had whispered to me, from the other side of her sectional couch. She’d been released from the hospital just in time for opening arguments. On her big TV the chief prosecutor was waving his arms, and Jana’s own hands hovered near the gauze bandage at her throat. She wanted to scratch her incision—we’d been working on that. Instead, she pressed her palms to the sides of her neck: “I can tell she’s guilty by looking at her.” Pressure made Jana’s voice stronger. We’d thought back then (the doctors had said) that Jana would be speaking normally within a few weeks. Now, twenty-four days into the trial, it’s clear that something happened to her vocal chords. The thyroid cancer message boards are full of dim prognoses about how long this side effect will last. Some of those posting used to be singers; they’ve lost whole octaves. Here’s another bright side: Jana never could carry a tune—but I have the good sense not to point that out.

“What was life like for you,” the defense attorney asks, “growing up in Terre Haute?”

“Good.” Caitlin Martin speaks in a high, halting drawl. “When I was little, things were real good. My grandparents gave me a nice home. We lived way back in this pretty little holler … like something in a fairytale.”

Her story sounds practiced but true, and as she describes her childhood, traces of another Caitlin play across her weary face—that fragile beauty I’ve seen in photos. I know Caitlin’s backstory already from the gossip magazines I bought during Jana’s convalescence and from the tabloid TV shows we watched when the trial was off-air. I wasn’t fascinated by the case the way my sister was—but after spending a full week of family sick-leave in front of Jana’s TV, I was certainly well acquainted with it. Like Jana, I know that Caitlin Martin had lived with her maternal grandparents until she was in eighth grade. That year, in the course of four months, her grandfather died and her grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease. I know that Caitlin’s mother came back into the picture then, claiming to be clean, moving into the house in the holler to take care of Caitlin and the ailing grandmother. But, funded by Grandma’s Social Security, Caitlin’s mother was soon using again. For the next several years, Caitlin “pretty much was a nurse.” She was held back in school; the bank took the house during her second freshman year. That’s when relatives intervened to put Caitlin’s grandmother in a nursing home. At sixteen, Caitlin was more than any of them could handle. She stayed with her mother when her mother had a place and otherwise she fended for herself.

“I was angry,” she testifies. “Acting out. I hardly ever went to school and I had lots of boyfriends.”

“What kind of boyfriends?” asks her lawyer. “Sometimes at that age people have hand-holding-type relationships, or ‘boyfriends’ who take them to dances. What were your relationships like?”

Caitlin glances at the jury, glances away. “Mostly sex.”

“Try to speak clearly,” her lawyer reminds her. “Now, you said they were mostly sexual? And what were the boys themselves like?”

“Older.” Caitlin reddens. “Guys my mama knew.”

“Did they treat you well?”

The prosecution objects to that phrasing; Caitlin’s lawyer tries again: “Did the men you dated as a teenager ever abuse you, physically?”

Caitlin shrugs before remembering to say, “Sometimes.” Beside me, my sister writes quickly in her trial notebook. Jana’s been writing about the trial from the beginning. Then, given the state of her vocal chords, it was easier for her to text me than to speak as we watched TV together. When her voice didn’t come back, Jana extended her sick leave (she’s an online marketing specialist, so she could work part-time from home). While she healed, she commented on the trial. She invented a new Twitter handle, a new blog—an entirely new persona for the occasion. “HatinCaitlinM” holds extreme views, but that’s what it takes to gain entry into the “community” of trial-watchers … and the sentiment of Jana’s handle isn’t exaggerated. Whereas I see Caitlin as her lawyer wishes—as a victim of circumstance, pushed into the string of abusive relationships that she’s now describing from the witness stand—Jana’s seen her from the beginning as the villain painted by cable TV pundits. “An unnatural woman,” proclaims Tamara Gold, host of The Gold Standard. Gold is ringleader of the court TV talking heads; with her Tammy Faye eyelashes, her platinum pompadour, and her stark delineations of good and evil, she’s hardly natural herself. But her show relieves the burden of trial watching for millions of viewers, who skip the protracted expert testimonies in favor of five-minute highlight reels and Gold’s folksy judgments. By the Gold Standard, Caitlin is “guilty as a spark in a brushpile.” Jana’s commentary is often just as facile: “Accountability much? #Rememberthefallen #JusticeforBrian” or “Human tumor. #CaitlinMartin.”

But there’s no sense in my objecting to Jana’s Tweets, not when I’m equally quick to accept Caitlin-as-victim. On the stand, prompted by her ponderous lawyer, Caitlin recounts dropping out of school at eighteen, in the fall of her junior year. She moved in with a forty-three-year-old man. “He was clean,” she testifies. “That’s all I cared about. He got drunk sometimes, but he didn’t use—and he never, ever hit me.” She managed to get her GED in the year she lived with him. And, because everyone had always told her she looked like Cinderella (she still does; though her hair has dulled and her face thinned, she still has the bland features and big eyes of a Disney heroine), she formed an idea. “I always dreamt of being a princess—I mean actually working at Disney World.” Her grandparents had taken her there for her tenth birthday, back when they were healthy and young. At nineteen Caitlin took the bus from Terre Haute to Orlando.

I know the rest, too: Caitlin auditioned but wasn’t cast as a Cinderella; she worked briefly in concessions at Disney but failed to master the park’s extensive code of conduct. She’d been working odd jobs around Orlando for seven years by the time her temp agency sent her to Brian’s realty firm. “He was so clean-cut and handsome,” she says. “I didn’t hardly know how to flirt with him.” That hadn’t mattered: “The first time he asked me to lunch we wound up back at his place.”

Was this why I pitied her? I’d been a temp, fifteen years ago, living in Boston between college and library school. With my BA in English, I was a terrible typist, had no concept of filing, and had to be taught to operate a copier, a fax machine, a switchboard phone. I’d spent a year in a long-term placement, without insurance, vacation days, or respect from the besuited lechers for whom I secretaried. When I was accepted to library school, I wept. It was that shocking to be valued again. This wasn’t Caitlin’s experience. When she left Brian’s realty firm after four months, it was because she’d been fired, by him, for disconnecting too many client phone calls. Based on his feedback, the temp agency reassigned her to custodial work. Her relationship with Brian shifted, too.

“He never took me out anymore, except for fast food. He used to bring me flowers—my desk was up front, you know, so it was like decoration for the office. But he didn’t do nice things after I got fired. And he told me all the time I was too dumb to be a secretary.”

“Were those his words?”

She shakes her head. “He’d say I was too dumb to do anything but f— … the F-word.”

“Miss Martin, will you say the phrase as Brian would, so it’s clear to everyone?”

She fidgets, closing her eyes, then dives close to the microphone. “He’d say I was too dumb to do anything but fuck.” Her consonants crack against the mic. “He’d say that all the time.” She slumps back; her fair hair, now silvered, swings in front of her face. Caitlin is thirty-three, the same as Jana. If he were alive, Brian would be thirty-seven, like me.

The judge calls a twenty-minute recess. I tug my sister’s arm so she’ll stand for the jury’s exit; she’s that caught up in her notes. What details will the press have already shared with the world, live-blogging Caitlin’s testimony from elsewhere in the courtroom? As a civilian, Jana isn’t allowed to broadcast her reactions in-session. Still, she’s gained credibility among the other trial-watchers for being here in person. I was shocked when she decided to make the trip. At first I took her post as a retweet: “Orlando bound! #MartinTrial #happiestplaceonearth.” Maybe I should’ve said “What about your health?” or “Jana, that’s disgusting”—but instead, I got her flight information and booked a ticket, too. I couldn’t make Jana go alone into the company of rabid watchers like InjectCaitlin and Wild4Trialz. Now we’ve met these women, two matronly fifty-somethings; we’ve even eaten lunch with them (twice!)—but Jana doesn’t waste any of today’s short recess socializing. In the courthouse cafeteria she finds a seat and immediately begins typing on her tablet. I imagine remarks like “Another great performance from #CaitlinMartin #playingthevictim” and “Save a few tears for #BrianDavis #pityparty.” My sister isn’t a member of BriaNation, the online army that feverishly rebuts every courtroom questioning of Brian Davis’s character. Though she advocates #JusticeforBrian, she’s much more passionate about punishment for Caitlin.

“Why do you hate her so much?” I’d asked, back in the first days of the trial. We were sipping protein smoothies in front of her TV.

“I hate murderers,” Jana texted. “And her face is annoying.”

On screen, Caitlin sat doodling at the defense’s table. The lawyers were arguing at sidebar and Jana’s Twitter feed was going wild: how dare the accused appear bored? Caitlin had a heavy lower lip and a thin, unbowed upper lip—a perpetual pout, undisguised now by makeup. Despite appearances, I felt sympathetic toward her.

“She says it was self-defense.”

“IF it was, she could’ve run away,” texted Jana. “Or let him hit her—and then not gone back.”

“Let him hit her?” My sister had been addled on painkillers.

“He’s dead. Dead = worse than bruised,” Jana texted. “She had choices.”

“She was afraid for her life.”

Jana shook her head, typing. “She said it happened before. IF that’s true, she knew he wasn’t going to kill her.”

“Maybe that’s not how it seemed, that night. Maybe it seemed like her only hope was to fight back. That’s just instinct, isn’t it, to fight back?”

Jana had looked at me then—not at the television, or her phone. The other side of the sectional seemed a long way away. The prosecutor resumed questioning the defense’s witness and I thought Jana was going to ignore me. Then my phone buzzed. “No,” she’d texted. After that, I had no more questions.

* * *

I was the one my sister called after she left Kyle, after she drove to a highway motel where she hoped he wouldn’t look for her. I still lived in Boston, then, and that call was the first indication I’d had that anything was wrong. But as soon as she said he’d hit her, I felt like I should’ve known. At holidays, on vacations, I should’ve been paying closer attention—to Kyle’s gestures, comments, attitudes—everything. I should’ve been there for Jana before she found herself in some cheap motel room. She was holed up in Michigan and I was a thousand miles away, snug in Massachusetts, where I’d lived for more than a decade. “I’ll fly you out here,” I told her—I wanted her as far from Kyle as possible. She’d never had any distance from him, had dated him off and on through high school and then again after college, when they both moved back to our hometown. They got married at twenty-four. “Drive to the airport right now.” But she wouldn’t budge, a cat caught up a tree. And so I went to her as quickly as I could. I stayed with her in that motel room over the weekend, holding her phone so she wouldn’t take Kyle’s calls (she asked me to do so, then begged each time to answer); I helped her find a new place to live. I went to their house while Kyle was at work and packed Jana’s things. When I had to fly back East, after using up all my personal days at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was hardly present in my own life. Kyle had abused her from the beginning, Jana finally confided. “In high school?” I’d been away at college during those years, but I remembered my mother’s concerns, shared over the phone: Jana was too serious about Kyle; she might be sexually active. I’d mocked those worries afterward, imitating my mother’s nasal accent (an accent I’d only recently learned to hear) as I lay with my boyfriend in my narrow dorm bed. “Since we got engaged . . . ” Jana said. “Making the guest list … there was a mutual friend I didn’t want to invite, because we hooked up once. And Kyle—was surprised by that, let’s say. He was upset.”

“It’s normal to be jealous,” she’d argued, after I was back in Boston and she was on her own, moving between work and her new apartment, not telling her friends she’d split from Kyle, not talking to anyone except me. “I’m not proud I messed around with other people. I wish I hadn’t.” I kept my phone on at all times, back then, calling her from the closed stacks. Kyle knew where she lived, she mentioned. They’d had dinner a couple of times. She wasn’t opposed to spending more time with him, she said. He seemed really lonely. I was visiting her as often as I could, leaving my cat under the care of successive friends, taking three-legged flights at odd times in order to afford airfare. When a position opened at the community college, back home, I applied. I was afraid not to. Staying at Jana’s apartment for my interview—those three bare rooms, filled with only what I’d managed to pack, plus the cheap furniture we’d bought that first week—I couldn’t tell whether she really lived there, or whether her life looked one way when I was there, and another when I was gone.

“Do you see him much?” I’d asked, the night after my interview. We were making dinner, realizing as we went how many kitchen goods Jana had forfeited.

She shrugged. “A few times a week.” She was chopping an onion with a steak knife.

“Do you see other people?” I watched her fingers, so close to the blade.

“What—now you think I’m a slut?” She chopped faster.

“No,” I said. “What I meant was, do you see other people socially? And, Jana—I would never use that word.”

“No?” She looked at me, resting her knife. “Not even if it was true?”

Slut is a hypocritical misogynistic slur.” I said. “You know that. Nobody who matters would think badly of you if you started dating again.”

“I’m married—not divorced.” Her eyes watered, though her fingers remained intact. “Slut is what I’d think. So drop it, Irene.”

Maybe I should’ve dropped it for good—maybe I should’ve kept my distance and let her work it out according to her own timeframe and logic. But I’d seen the bruises around her right eye, down her neck. That first week, I’d watched them turn from purple to yellow—like how many other bruises I hadn’t witnessed? I got the community college job, working at their library reference desk; I gave notice in Boston. Before I’d even unpacked in Michigan, I took Jana to see a divorce lawyer. That first appointment was just a conversation, explaining the process—but the lawyer followed up and I followed up even more persistently. I pestered Jana, really, and finally she filed. I helped Jana to correct an unfortunate misstep. Caitlin Martin hadn’t had a sister or even any close friends. She had only her own hopes that Brian would change, the bouquets would return, the abuses stop. Look what happened, I had to stop myself from telling Jana, every time we watched the trial. Look what I spared you from.

* * *

Caitlin’s attorney approaches her again, more rumpled after the recess. He can’t have been sleeping, though his clothes and his crooked comb-over suggest otherwise. He clears his throat wetly. “Miss Martin, in the months leading up to December 11, 2008, did you and Mr. Davis have any other notable fights?”

The prosecution objects to the word “fight”—they contend that Brian was taken unawares on the night of his death—and Caitlin’s attorney rephrases: “Did Mr. Davis use physical force against you in the months leading up to December 11, 2008?”

Caitlin nods. “This one time, probably in October, he let me borrow his car. I was supposed to fill it up afterward but I didn’t have enough money, so I got just a couple of gallons. More than I used—but Brian got real mad. I hadn’t ‘respected our agreement,’ he said. He grabbed my arm and threw me down, right on his driveway. It still hurts sometimes.” She rubs her bicep.

“Did you see a doctor?”

“I couldn’t afford that.”

“So nothing went on record. Were there other physical incidents?”

“Yessir. He got real upset whenever I messed with his stuff. Like, if I put wooden spoons in the dishwasher or used the wrong sponge on the counter. He’d make me pay for those things.”

“What did that mean—pay?”

She shakes her head, biting her fat lower lip. “He’d always say I wasn’t worth much—I only made $12 an hour with the temp agency. Less than a whore, he’d say. So if I did something wrong he’d decide how much it was worth, and I’d have to do—things—until I paid him back. Sex things.”

“But you had a consensual sexual relationship—this was a game?”

She closes her eyes. “I wasn’t supposed to say no.”

“Did you enjoy this arrangement?”

She shakes her head, then remembers—“No.”

“And did you have sexual relations, outside of this system?”

“Not really.” Caitlin pulls a tissue from the box on the witness stand. “I was always doing something wrong.”

“Miss Martin, why did you stay in this relationship?”

I look at Jana, writing steadily. She’s fashioned a narrow French braid across her hairline, pinning it behind her left ear. It’s a hairstyle we’ve admired on models, in magazines—something I’d never have the dexterity to do, even if my hair was long enough. With her hair pulled back, I can see my sister’s expression, intent on the proceedings but unchanged by that question.

“I loved him,” Caitlin says. Her Disney eyes widen, as though she’s surprised that this, at least, isn’t obvious.

“Did you believe that he loved you?”

“Oh, no.” Caitlin shakes her head. “I wished—but I wasn’t in his league. I only figured he might stay with me if I did what he said to.”

Now my sister rolls her eyes. It is disgusting—the whole truth, or this scripted version of it.

“Did you feel that being with him, even under the circumstances, was better than not being with him?”

“Yessir. He was the first person I’d known in a long time that had goals. He was—thinking about the future.” Her voice breaks.

“Miss Martin, are you ready to talk about the night of December 11, 2008?’

“Yes,” she whispers. “I can talk about it.”

HE CAN’T, my sister scrawls. #JusticeforBrian, I supply, reflexively. The whole truth is that I’m not sorry he’s dead, that smirking blond salesman from the evidence photos, broad and fit and tan. It’s easy to imagine him talking clients into more expensive homes than they can afford; easy to imagine him intimidating a damaged person like Caitlin. He was popular in high school, his friends have told the gossip magazines. As if that’s a virtue.

* * *

When Jana divorced Kyle, her lawyer suggested filing a restraining order. It was standard practice, the lawyer said, used to demonstrate irreconcilable differences. I was surprised to learn how easy it was to get a restraining order. Just ask, just offer a reason that you don’t want someone near you, and the court will make that reason official. The order isn’t enforced, of course, unless the person holding it contacts the police. So for Jana to have this thing on record didn’t really mean much, as I tried to persuade her. Still, she couldn’t fathom “doing that to Kyle.” I don’t know whether she told him that this idea had been proposed and that I was behind it; I don’t know what she told him, about me or anything else. But when, for two weeks straight, I was followed home from work by a black Dodge Charger, I filed a restraining order against him myself. After that, as long as I was near Jana, Kyle couldn’t be. He knew this, having received notice of the order; my sister knew it, too.

Naturally our parents were confused by my sudden move back to Michigan. They’d enjoyed visiting me in Boston, walking the Freedom Trail and wandering Mount Auburn Cemetery. My life there fit their idea of me as the bookish daughter, become a librarian in a craggy, quaint city. I couldn’t betray Jana by telling them the whole truth, so I told them something else—that I was ready for a change, wanted to be near my sister, missed Lake Michigan. All of which was true. I didn’t tell them about Kyle, and I didn’t tell them the other thing: that it was exciting to let go of my Boston life and its routines—to just let go of what had grown familiar. It felt freeing, at first, as though I could become someone new and help my sister transform, in the process. But we neither transformed nor reverted to the easy companionship of our childhood. It was hard being around Jana during and after the divorce. She was sullen or frantic, rarely engaged by our conversations and activities. And I hadn’t given enough thought to what my choices would mean between me and my parents. When, that Christmas three years ago, Jana had explained that she and Kyle were separated, my mother turned to me. She didn’t say anything, but her feelings were there on her face, her recognition of what I’d kept secret. My parents had always encouraged the two of us to stick up for each other, but it was clear from my mother’s glance that this wasn’t where she’d expected that loyalty to lead. “You could’ve come to us,” my mother said. “You should have.” She hugged Jana but looked at me. “Honey, I’m sorry.”

If anyone actually started over, after the divorce, it was Kyle. For a few months following the proceedings, he continued to haunt us—a gleaming black shadow far in my rearview mirror; a spate of weepy messages on Jana’s voicemail. The few friends I’d reconnected with in our hometown passed along stories: he hooked up with a twenty-year-old, got thrown out of a bar downtown. We didn’t fact-check these rumors. Or maybe Jana did; maybe she was still seeing him sometimes—I can’t say for sure. But the summer after the split, Kyle left town. He moved to Colorado, we heard; all Jana knew was that she woke up one morning to a call from her building manager. Some guy had left a bunch of boxes for her, and could she move them out of the lobby ASAP? When she opened them, she found that Kyle had packed up every item from their wedding registry. Some things were unused, others well-worn. Kyle loved her, Jana insisted, but he’d relinquished everything that represented their six-year marriage. I was glad these boxes had been left without a note, in a humble rather than grand gesture. Kyle was gone; my sister could start over. That very afternoon she bought her giant beige sectional and a queen-sized bed.

* * *

When court adjourns for the day—our final day in Orlando—we’ve heard Caitlin’s description of the events of December 11, 2008. She’d tried and failed to turn on Brian’s bedroom television. “He kept screaming about the receiver,” she testified, “but there was no ‘receiver’ button on the clicker.” She’d attempted to turn the components on manually. But “do it right!” he’d yelled. He threw the remotes at her, striking her on the temple with one, nicking the drywall with another. “That made him mad,” she testified. He didn’t care that he’d hurt her, only that he’d hurt the house. “You’re going to pay for that,” he’d shouted—and for once, she said no. She ran from the room but he ran faster, blocking the front door. “Where are you going?” he’d taunted. “You have work to do, girl.” He’d taken her purse, her phone, holding them out of reach. She tried the landline. Caitlin described Brian laughing at her—the phone wasn’t hooked up.

“He said I still didn’t know how to use a phone. He said firing me was the best choice he’d ever made. I remember him taking off his belt.” On the witness stand she stopped, shaking her head.

“Then what happened?”

“I don’t know!” She said it straight to the jury, speaking loudly for once. “I don’t remember!” Selective amnesia, my sister wrote on her notepad. But Caitlin seemed genuinely agitated as she described the next thing she remembered: being in Brian’s car—and seeing her bloody reflection in the rearview mirror. “There was something . . . ” She waved her hand across her face.

“I went back inside,” she said, “to wash up. I didn’t know . . . . And then I saw something on the carpeting—this big red stripe, like something got drug down the hall.”

“When you saw that, what did you do?”

“I yelled for Brian,” she said. “I couldn’t find my phone to call for help.”

Caitlin recounted following that trail, to find Brian on the floor of his bedroom, face down.

“I went over to him, and when I came up by his waist, he grabbed my ankle—like in a scary movie. His hand … was all red. And he said—it was awful—he said ‘I’m going to kill you, you retarded bitch.’ And he jerked real hard on my ankle, and I fell against the dresser and hit my head—right where he’d gotten me with the clicker.”

That’s when Caitlin remembered the loaded gun Brian kept in his sock drawer. Something he bragged about, she said (and I could only imagine how BriaNation would react; Brian was surely responsible in gun ownership as in everything else). Her head was throbbing and Brian was still coming after her, dragging himself along the floor. She took the gun from the drawer.

“Did he see it?”

“I think so, because he came at me faster.”

“Still crawling?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t run?”

“I would’ve had to jump over him, and he’d already pulled me down once.”

“So what did you do?”

“I fired the gun.”

“Were you trying to shoot him?”

“I was trying to scare him.”

“You weren’t aiming the gun at Brian when you fired?”

“I didn’t know how to use it—I’d never even held a gun before.”

“Do you remember hitting him?”

“No.”

“Do you remember shooting the gun again?”

“No.”

She shot him six times, as we all knew. As she described it, Brian Davis’s family members wept and embraced in the front row of the gallery. Were they imagining Brian’s pain, or how he’d treated Caitlin? The cable station’s big HD camera swiveled toward the family and Jana adjusted the scarf at her throat.

“Miss Martin,” said the attorney, “do you remember what happened next?”

She shook her head. “I must’ve walked home.”

A twelve-mile walk with blood on her face in the middle of the night. Did someone pick her up from Brian’s? She couldn’t remember. Nor did she remember what she’d done with the gun; she couldn’t remember anything about the knife. But it’s impossible, or nearly so, that anyone but Caitlin disposed of those weapons. They were found, wiped, in a brackish lake behind a discount shopping center, just across the highway from her apartment complex. Caitlin lived in Pine Hills, a rough part of Orlando—dangerous enough for Tamara Gold to ask, “What was a ‘nice’ girl like her doing in Crime Hills?” Did Caitlin figure, when she dumped her weapons, that they’d just blend in with all the others? Instead, they were found within forty-eight hours of Brian’s death. A partial print was taken from the handle of the eight-inch chef’s knife—the only piece missing from Brian’s Wüsthof set. The shopping center even turned over fuzzy surveillance footage of a slim figure crossing the parking lot on December 12th. In other words, Caitlin had no idea how not to get caught. On the stand, she clutched a tissue, weeping or pretending to. She only cries for herself, Jana wrote. Never for Brian. But I can bring myself to the verge of panic by imagining myself in Caitlin’s place, that night or in the witness box. In Caitlin’s place, I would’ve done anything to save myself.

When court adjourns for the day, Jana and I file outside. We won’t be back, thank God. We will soon become rational creatures again, interested in matters of consequence. Even so, I offer to take a picture of Jana in front of the courthouse—a souvenir. “Sure,” she whispers. She reties her scarf, eyeing the crowd on the plaza. Every day we leave the orderly courtroom to meet BriaNation in full regalia. Supporters of the Davis family carry homemade signs and distribute buttons; Brian’s face is everywhere. On Wednesday, a trial-watcher was even arrested for trying too insistently to hug a grieving Davis. Cable crews troll this motley crowd, angling for interviews. It’s a scene we’ll remember, with or without photographs. Still, I dig through my tote for my camera. When I look up, my sister is waving to someone. CaitlinMartian, TrialWatcher69, Wild4Trialz—all of Jana’s friends know that we’re flying home tomorrow, all will want to say goodbye. But approaching us, quickly, is a woman with tall yellow hair, an electric blue powersuit. A familiar face—but not, I realize, from among our circle of courtroom acquaintances. It’s Tamara Gold, of The Gold Standard.

Jana waves again and Gold calls out: “Which of ya’ll girls is the blogger?” My camera is in my hands; I raise it, take the incredible picture of my sister shaking hands with Gold, then being led away by a waifish young man with gelled hair and a clipboard. The portion of BriaNation that orbits the cable crews closes around Gold and Jana, trundling in a mass toward a more scenic corner of the plaza. They leave me behind. Jana is right there, I know, but from this vantage, I can’t be sure that she hasn’t disappeared.

Which one of you is the blogger?—I find my phone at the bottom of my bag, turn it on. “Domestic violence is a cancer,” Jana had tweeted earlier, “Remember the real victim #EarlyDetection #Survivor #JusticeforBrian.” The post links back to her blog—to the post she wrote at recess:

As a cancer survivor, I know what it’s like to be surprised. By the time I knew my thyroid was diseased, the only way to save myself was to get rid of it. That’s the situation that Brian was in. Caitlin Martin was a cancer, but he couldn’t see it, no matter how hard he looked. He couldn’t see she had changed from normal to malignant. We don’t know exactly why that happened—whether Caitlin mutated or was cancerous from birth—but we do know that Brian should have gotten rid of her at the first sign of abnormality. He was too trusting to do this, and because of his kindness he made the ultimate sacrifice.

I read it again, lingering on that last phrase. The ultimate sacrifice? If Jana were beside me, instead of lost inside that sycophantic circle, I’d ask her how she could use such language—this trite, militaristic euphemism—to describe being killed in a domestic dispute. Sacrifice denotes willingness, I’d tell her; sacrifice means giving up something for someone else.

But what would my protest mean, when many, many trial-watchers have already reposted this paragraph of Jana’s? I scroll through dozens of supportive notes in her comments section. This is no place for me to post my objections. If I unfollowed her now, HatinCaitlinM wouldn’t even notice.

* * *

I wait for nearly an hour on the plaza—watching the crowd thin and skateboarders emerge, to grind down the concrete stairs—before Gold’s assistant finds me.

“Miss Karlin? Your sister asked me to tell you that you should meet her back at the hotel.”

“No,” I say, reflexively. “How will she get there without me?”

Miss Gold will take care of that, he assures me; it won’t be much longer.

“My sister can barely speak—I don’t understand how an interview, or whatever they’re doing, could take this long.”

“Everyone is aware of Mrs. Sheehan’s condition. Miss Gold’s production team just has a few details left to work out with your sister.”

Mrs. Sheehan—Jana’s married name, her legal name. It’s as unexpected as the phrase production team. “Is Jana going to be on TV?” I’ve never seen anything approaching this fuss when the cable crew solicits reactions on the plaza. But I’ve never paid much attention, either.

“I’m not at liberty, but I’m sure Mrs. Sheehan will explain everything later.”

“I’d rather wait here.”

“Miss Karlin, your sister left with Miss Gold. The easiest thing would be to wait for her at the hotel. Miss Gold’s driver will deliver Mrs. Sheehan in just a bit, safe and sound.”

I check my phone. Its blankness confirms what he’s saying: Jana has abandoned me. And so I go. Alone in our musty hotel room, I find the court channel, but I can’t bear to listen to it, or even to watch its muted faces, frowning earnestly. I pack my suitcase, pack Jana’s, too, ticking off the minutes until our flight the next morning. I’m glad we didn’t allow an extra day for Universal Studios, Gatorland, Disney World—any of the garish amusements whose brochures litter this cheap room. Jana spent her honeymoon at Disney, but I’ve never been; our family never made that trip. In fact I’ve only visited Florida once before this, over the Labor Day weekend following my college graduation. My senior-year boyfriend had been recruited by a consulting firm; he was rooming with another new consultant in an apartment paid for by the firm. He drove a company car and had already identified the company girl he would date after me. The attraction we’d felt for each other at college, tucked away in the mountains of western Massachusetts, didn’t translate into the denuded landscape of central Florida. I remember the stark white beaches, the bleached-white sky, the sheen of sweat and oil on my clammy white face. I felt incongruous and plain at beachside bars; I felt shy of the body he’d built over the summer, working out to kill time until his job started. That relationship amounted to nothing; he’s someone I sometimes forget, when I tally the men I’ve been with. But being in Florida for the trial reminds me of who I was, on that other visit—someone awkward and confused, a stranger even to the calendar of my post-college life. That boyfriend dumped me on the drive to the Tampa airport, and as soon as I landed in Boston, I began my stint as a temp. Now, fifteen years later, I’m waiting in an Orlando hotel room for my sister, on the eve of flying back to our hometown. I could almost believe that my life away from her never happened, or mattered.

I tap my phone to life: no messages. But at the top of my meager Twitter feed—

“@GoldStandard: Meet your new on-air correspondent! #JusticeforBrian.”

I’m still considering this when the card reader buzzes and Jana comes in. She waves, an exhausted gesture. It’s almost 10 o’clock. We’ve gotten up every morning this week at four to get seats in the gallery. Ten o’clock in a strange town, and Jana didn’t message me about her whereabouts—except insofar as she tweeted her followers. Now she nods to my phone.

“You saw?” she asks aloud.

“I did.”

“No ‘congratulations’?” Her hand goes to her throat and she pulls her phone from her blazer pocket. “Did you watch my segment?” she texts.

“I missed it.”

“They’ll be more,” she types. “They hired me as a commentator!”

“You can’t speak.” It’s the first thing that comes to my mind. How could you? is next.

“I’ll type,” she texts. “Like this, but on-air with Tamara. They’ll have a display on half the screen. It’s a new angle.”

“Jana … you want to be part of this?”

She blinks at me. “Why do you think I came down here?” she texts.

“To get a spot on The Gold Standard?”

“What—you’re above this kind of thing? :P”

Yes, I’d like to answer—but after all, I’m here. “This is going to affect your life, Jana. Your job.”

She waves her hand, then types: “This IS my job now. This is something I care about.”

“What will Mom and Dad think?” This is how they’ll find out she’s had cancer … by seeing her on court TV, an expert trial-watcher with a sad backstory.

“They’ll be proud.” She takes off her blazer, hangs it carefully. She’s right; that’s how our parents will say they feel.

“Jana … you realize that Kyle will see you?”

She shrugs, her back to me. She unzips her suitcase and begins unfolding the clothes I just packed. Jana’s being on TV will be big news back home. Kyle’s parents will be sure to tell him. From there, no doubt he’ll find Jana’s blog, her zealous condemnations of Caitlin.

“That boy with the clipboard called you Mrs. Sheehan.”

She reaches again for her phone. “It’s my name,” she texts.

“But when Kyle sees that on TV, what does it say? It says you’re still his.”

“That’s your opinion.”

“Don’t you think he’ll get in touch with you?” He’ll be upset that she’s suffered without him. He won’t be able to handle her not needing him. “Jana—you’re not doing this to get him back—are you?”

She turns to face me, shaking her head. “Go to hell,” she rasps.

“Why, then? Why would you want to be a lackey for some über-conservative witch?”

“That’s your opinion,” she says, then types: “34. Divorced. Cancer. Not going to waste more time.”

“I can understand wanting a change; that’s natural after trauma. But this?”

“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance to make a difference.”

Clichés—but to point that out would be pointless. “You could do that in so many ways. With your skill set, if we moved out East, you could do anything you wanted.”

“Your world, not mine.”

“So Seattle, then, San Francisco. We’ll go together, start over.”

“Start. Over.” she types. “Get it?”

“Why would you want to add to this spectacle? It’s gross, Jana, it’s not you. We could go anywhere, do anything. ”

“No,” Jana says aloud, “we can’t.” Her weakened voice is almost a sigh. “Irene—how can I start over if you’re with me?”

Suddenly she appears beside herself on the muted TV. That other Jana smiles at the camera, tilting her head toward Gold’s foam-tipped microphone. What’s she saying?

“I need space,” Jana texts. “I need to do my own thing.” She clears her throat. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I say. “Didn’t you forget that one?”

“Irene—stop. I want this. They want me. Why can’t you ever be happy for me?” The living Jana frowns beside her doppelgänger.

“I can’t be happy when you’re making a terrible decision.”

She opens her mouth, then winces, texts. “I’m staying until the trial’s over. After that, we’ll see.”

“Jana, I—” What? I don’t want you to treat me like this? I moved to Michigan for you, so you can’t do this to me? I try again: “You’re better than this.”

“This is a good thing,” she texts. “An opportunity. You & I will be happier living our own lives again.”

I think of what my résumé will look like, the cover letter that will be necessary to explain my choices. What’s left of my own life?

“You could move in with Mom & Dad,” she types. “Until you figure out what you want.”

She’s serious, and I feel my throat closing as it does when I’m angry. I’ve always cried when I want to scream, always looked weaker than I am. I walked willingly into all of this—sacrificing my life and career to “save” my sister, who maybe only needed a scapegoat. Someone to seem like the instigator, the villain, the author of restraining orders. Someone to take care of her until she was recovered. If she ever needed me at all.

“I could slap you.” I know full well what I’m saying.

Her dark eyes widen. “No,” she says. “You could not.”

I shake my head to push back the pain in my throat; I can barely speak. I take up my phone: “I love you,” I text her. “I’m here if you need me.”

“Oh, Reny,” Jana’s sharp features go soft. She crosses the room, hugs me—so close that I can feel her scarf against my neck. “I know. And I couldn’t have done this without you. I really couldn’t.”

* * *

The Martin trial will go for weeks and weeks, and my sister will weigh in on each day’s proceedings. On air, her hair will grow higher and glossier, her outfits a succession of primary colors. Always, her blouses will fall open at the throat, displaying a scar lightened by makeup but still insistent. Jana will smile silently as Tamara Gold inveighs against “the new Delilah,” then she’ll offer a more restrained version of the same sentiment: “Caitlin simply doesn’t value human life.” When her voice is up to it, Jana will call on the weekends. I won’t know, I won’t ask, what her life in Florida consists of, besides The Gold Standard. I won’t follow the trial itself anymore, though I’ll know where it’s heading. Instead I’ll send out job applications, make amends with my parents, focus on my new beginning. Eventually, late some night, I’ll seek out Jana’s first interview with Tamara Gold. I know that in it, Jana will still look like herself, with her braided crown of hair and a creamy scarf to hide her scar. She’ll press her palms to her neck, then lower her hands before leaning close to the microphone. “This case has inspired a passion in me,” she’ll say. Her voice will sound clear and strong, with what effort only I know. “I hope to draw attention to it through my blog; I hope I can be a small part of justice for Brian and others like him.” And Tamara Gold, hugging my sister with one arm, will say “You are so brave, to come down here in your condition. To sacrifice so much, for a total stranger.”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 | Single Page